Friday, June 16, 2006

 

Mercury and Gold

I have read that the San Francisco Bay is contaminated with mercury from the 1849 Gold Rush, but I always wondered how mercury was used for gold mining.

Mercury forms an amalgam with gold. An amalgam is just a special name for an alloy (metal mixture) with mercury. Dentists use a gold or silver amalgam for filling teeth.

As an amalgam the gold flakes to clump together, so they are easier to separate from sand and dirt.

Use of amalgam in dentistry is controversial because mercury causes brain damage. Hat makers once used mercury to soften felt. As they absorbed mercury they slowly went insane. Hence the term "mad as a hatter" and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

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